I’ve never given much thought to my writing habits. Have you? Then the other day a former colleague posted a really interesting piece , from Brain Pickings, on Facebook. The particular story I’m referring to, is about famous writers’ daily routines.
Ray Bradbury, for example, wrote everyday. And he wrote everywhere. He didn’t care where he was. He could be wrapped in total silence, or the radio could be blaring. It made no difference to him. He was oblivious to all of it. On the other hand, Jack Kerouac wrote by candlelight, with a drink close at hand, from midnight until dawn.
He also got down on his knees and prayed before getting started. I think most of us say a little prayer, every time we look at a blank screen or sheet of paper. Even if it’s a silent plea, and we do it from the comfort of our desk chairs.
Hemingway was very disciplined. He woke, every day, at 7 am and he’d write between 500 to 1,000 words. Every day. He needed a schedule. And did you know? Supposedly because of a leg injury sustained in the war, he wrote standing up. It’s said (not by him) it increases productivity, fights fatigue, stops you from wanting to nap and helps you ignore distractions.
Just sounds bloody uncomfortable to me.
Do you know who said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a
word on paper?” It was E.B. White, the American writer who, among other things, co-authored the English language style guide, The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as ‘Strunk & White’. I happen to agree with him.
There are no ideal conditions. When your writing is going well, anywhere you are is perfect. When it’s going badly, you’re in hell no matter where you are. In his case, the proof is in the pudding. He loved to have music playing while he was writing. He didn’t mind distractions. The cleaning lady could be vacuuming right beside him, and he didn’t care. Nothing stopped him from being an extremely prolific writer.
Goes to show you.
Joan Didion spends an hour before dinner reviewing the day’s work, while she has a drink. Very civilized. She revises as she reviews, only to redo it all again, the next morning. And she needs to work in total seclusion. Susan Sontag wrote in her notebook each and every day. First she wrote by hand. When she finally had a decent draft, she typed it. Then she’d scrawl changes all over her typed copy.
Over and over again, she’d go through the same process. Typing. Correcting. Re-typing, until she knew it couldn’t be improved any more. It was as good as it could be. This, of course, was before we had computers. While she did give up the typewriter, she continued to print all of her work out and revise by hand. Interestingly, she didn’t start writing, even in long hand, before the story had ‘matured’ in her head.
She’d get up every morning no later than 8 am. She rarely went out to lunch and told friends never to call her in the morning. When the phone did ring, she refused to answer. And when the writing was going well she lost track of everything. She just wrote endlessly. Although she loved to read, she’d only allow herself to do it at night. And only answered mail once a week.
Another very disciplined writer.
While I’m certainly not in their league, reading about these writers’ routines made me think about my own. In my case, though, my writing is divided into three very different ‘types’:
Client work. My blogs. My book. And while my ‘routine’ is the same, my ‘approach’ toward each is different:
With client work I get briefed. I have a deadline. I deliver. I get paid. Unlike a book, for example, which requires a continuous effort, my paid projects have a beginning and an end. Even if I work regularly for the same client. It’s how I earn my living, so there’s no screwing around. Nothing gets in the way of meeting my deadlines. With clients, there’s never a risk I’ll procrastinate.
My blog is somewhat similar. I’ve committed to write everyday. My reputation is on the line. So I approach it the same way I approach client work. I must have something to ‘publish’ every morning at 7 am. So I am very disciplined about it. Sometimes I have several ideas, write them all up and ‘stock pile’ them. Sometimes I write them the day before. And sometimes I’m forced to get up very early in the morning, in order to make my self-imposed deadline of 7 a.m.
Where I’m having a bit of difficulty, is with my book. Life has a way of distracting me. I’ve got to stop letting it happen; and I do have a plan.
So, my ‘schtick’.
Years ago, like Susan Sontag, I used to write everything out. Each thought on a separate piece of paper. When the piles became unruly I’d stop and weave sentences and paragraphs together. Only when I was happy, would I type it up. And hand write my edits on the typed sheets. They’d be full of scribbles. And I’d revise. And start over. And over. And over. Thank God computers put an end to all that!
Having said that, though, I still print my final draft out to give it one, last look. And nine times out of ten I catch something I missed. I even do it with my book, which is now hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Getting up early, like most authors, has never been my forte. I’m not much of a morning person. Now, though, I’m becoming used to starting very early, because of this blog. And I’m finding I love it. My head is very clear and there’s nothing to distract me. I am much more productive. So I am going to make this a habit for all my writing, especially my book. I now understand why so many writers get such early starts.
Like Ray Bradbury, I can pretty much write anywhere. In fact, I love writing in cafes. I love the ‘buzz’ of human energy. Once I’m into what I’m writing you could stand right in front of me and yell and I wouldn’t notice. It’s just the ‘hum’ I like. It started when I came to a difficult chapter in my book. The death of my mother. After several months of my editing and re-editing and re-editing all the chapters before it, instead of getting started on the new one, I finally realized I was avoiding it. I was avoiding it because I didn’t want to re-live it, especially without the almost protective layer of numbness you have, when you’re living through it the first time.
What didn’t help was the ‘stillness’ in my apartment. My emotions were bouncing off the walls. Only when I ‘ran away’ to Starbucks, could I get it done. The chapter was written in three days. The habit’s stuck. Although recently I’ve been writing more often at home. But not in my office. I feel too isolated in there. I prefer working at my dining room table. Wherever I am I, too, lose track of time.
Ten, twelve hours can go by, without me noticing. I don’t even stop to eat. And regardless of what I’m writing, and who it’s for, I always write it in my head, first. It has to percolate and formulate before I can sit down in front of my computer.
How peculiar we writers are.
What about you? What are your habits? Your eccentricities? What works best for you? Feel like sharing?